The Much-Maligned Caisa (and Other HandPan)

In recent times, there has been a huge amount of negativity sweeping through the world of HandPan.  We see some, happy to openly call out instruments such as the Bali Steel Pan, as sounding like: ‘out of tune trash can lids’, while others instead, use their Bali’s, to produce beautiful music.  Some, brazenly describe HandPan like the Innersound, as being ‘Junk’.  While others instead, choose to show off exactly what these instruments are capable of, under gifted hands.

And so it is that in this post, I decided to revisit the earlier days of HandPan, and a time when the first HandPan, following the invention of the Hang, were beginning to appear.  A time that looking back now, could be categorised as a time of open untainted minds, and hearts, in comparison, to the prevailing moods of the current climate.

One of the first HandPan to hit the market, following in the wake of the Hang, was the Caisa.  An instrument that these days receives very little love, within the HandPan community.  However, one of my personal favourite HandPan reviews, ever put together, is the following Caisa review, by HandPan ambassador, turned maker of very sweet sounding pans of his own, Colin Foulke.  And it goes a little something like this:

‘I am fortunate enough to have been loaned a Caisa by one of our lovely Forum members! I have been playing it for a couple days now and felt that I would give it a little review. Before I do though I would like to state that I think the Caisa is a GREAT instrument. It has many of the great handpan characteristics and is a joy to play. --- Overall, the Caisa is a great instrument and its great to play. It no doubt has the ability to move people and really captivate an audience. Although it will never be a Hang, it absolutely stands on its own two feet as a fantastic instrument and as a proud member of the Handpan family.’

You can read the full review: HERE.

To which we can add the words of Eric Muller (who I believe is currently working at Aura HandPan):

‘So yesterday i got out of school early because i had my senior prom. i called my brother to meet me to get a bite to eat he was a bit late so i waited in the restaurant. when he arrived he had this massive box in his hands........ from germany...... with my name on it. Finally my caisa has arrived and it sounds beautiful. It is in the Cosma tuning and the videos on youtube are no where near how amazing it is.’

You can read the full review: HERE

And then, as noted above, we have the Bali Steel Pan.  An instrument that contrary to current prevailing opinions, was described in earlier days in the following manner, by none other than Lino (maker of LinoTune, the HandPan tuning software used today by most of the big makers)...

‘The Bali's sound had a fair amount of steelpan in the lower notes, but (to my ear) not unpleasantly so - it's earthy, like a refreshing visit from a country cousin after you've hung out with city slickers for too long…’

Reference: HERE

Who would also go on to state that:

‘The Balis have improved a lot over the past year, so you should ignore older youtube videos when forming an opinion of them.’

Reference: HERE

While Richard Saggio, another well known member of the HandPan community, stated the following back in 2012:

‘The current Bali is a charming, worthy handpan, well worth looking into. I played a late model Gong Diao & Shang Diao yesterday & it was joyful ‘

Reference: HERE

I can't help but wonder, if I were to ask each of these people today, their opinions on these instruments, if they would answer in the same manner as they did back then. And I suspect that they would not. So what's changed? The instrument? The player? Or something else?

To my mind, it appears to be the latter. A hive-mind regurgitation of group opinions that often seem to trickle down from the few. In place of the honest thoughts and explorations of the individual. Would Colin Foulke, for example, have gone on to create such beautiful sounding HandPan as he currently does, if he had been deprived of the opportunity to spend some time getting to know that Caisa, having paid too much heed to the opinions of others?

There ARE pitfalls to be avoided when looking to buy a HandPan, and dangers to be side-stepped.  There are scammers, and profiteers, as there are in any other marketplace.  And there are also those who would like you to consider them as being best positioned to advise you, who may in fact, not offer you the best of advice (and that goes double, for any advice that you might find me dishing out ;) ).  Do, strap on your big-boy pants, and do, do your research.  Listen to advice, and take it into consideration, where-ever you can find it.  But above all else, trust your own ears (and do not listen too closely, to those who would have you believe, that what your own ears are telling you, is wrong).   

And in the words of the awesomely talented Kabeção, - 'Just Play With What You Got!'...

What Are "Top Shelf" HandPan - HandPan Terminology

You may have heard of the term "Top Shelf" HandPan (sometimes also referred to as "Top Tier") - it is a phrase used often in such places as the Swap and Sale group found over at Facebook, by those looking to swap pans with those of a similar quality.  But what does it mean?

The Top Shelf is primarily a construct of the HandPan.org forum, and consists of a group of instruments that have been deemed by that community to be of the highest quality.  And at time of posting, the Top Shelf consists of the work of: PANArt, Pantheon Steel, BEllArt, Victor Levinson, Echo Sound Sculpture, and the recently added CFoulke HandPans.

Interestingly, one of the Handpan.org moderators recently gave some insight into what makes for an instrument being classed as being Top Shelf by the forum.  Suggesting that significantly increased interest, or ‘groundswell’ in a particular make of pan is a strong factor. As are the opinions and feedback of "top players" and makers, who may have gotten their hands on them, combined with a certain consensus from the hands-on-play of attendees at HandPan gatherings and festivals.  Among other factors. With new additions to the Top Shelf being added as appropriate.

As a point of note, the Top Shelf system of classification, particularly now that its use often extends outside of the Handpan.org forum itself, has been accused of being biased by some.  And deserving, or not, it is true that some long-serving members, or "friends of the forum" have quickly found "houses" there, while those who have been publicly vocal in their condemnation of the system (and/or of the forum itself), such as Panormus, are notable by their absence.  And Tzevaot, another make of HandPan that has often found itself at odds with the forums members, have themselves (at time of posting at least) become a banned topic of discussion.

Biased, or not though - there is no denying that the instruments that currently make up the Top Shelf, are each of exceptional quality.  And while the Top Shelf system of ranking is not one that we technically observe here at HPM, if you’re new to the world of HandPan, and are looking to take a listen to the sort of singing steel that gets the hardcore fanatics drooling, few wish-lists are likely formed that do not contain at least one, of these widely-respected offerings. Though with that said, there's a much wider-world of instruments out there than those that make up the Handpan.org Top Shelf, that are very much worthy of further exploration...

In the words of gifted HandPan musician Florian Betz: 'I'm happy, there's not just the "Top Shelf". When I play concerts I often ask the Audience, what Pan I should use for the last song. The result of this "poll" contradicts perception of "Quality" within the community. A good player can create magic on all Handpans'.

From HAPI Drum to HAPI HandPan

HAPI were among the first commercially available steel tongue drum to hit the market, back in 2008, following the invention of the Hang-inspired ‘Hank drum’, by Dennis Havlena.  And HAPI have since gone on to become arguably the most recognisable name in steel tongue drum, the world over.  And in recent months we’ve seen something new leaking out from the HAPI workshops - HAPI-made HandPan.

Aided by a sharing of knowledge with Dave Beery, of Dave’s Island Instruments (a collaboration that can also be seen in the recently unveiled ‘Ohm HandPan / Steel Tongue Drum hybrid instrument’), HAPI HandPan are being made by, ‘Grahm Doe’, one half of the husband and wife team behind HAPI. 

Grahm describes the process of learning to build and tune HandPan as being “one of the hardest things in my life I have learned to do” - reflecting sentiments that we’ve heard expressed by almost every self-taught HandPan maker we know of to date.  And with early results showing great promise, and with such an accomplished mentor as Dave Beery on-hand to offer guidance, we’re sure to hear increasingly good sounds coming from the HAPI camp, with each new pan offered for sale.

Visit the HAPI website for more information: HERE

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